Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Duke Ellington: The Most Prolific American Composer In The 20th Century

Duke Ellington at the KFG Radio Studio, November 3, 1954

Listening to Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) is akin to attending a lavish banquet featuring an array of fine courses, good wines and pleasant company. Very satisfying. For the past thirty years, it's been a joy to grow in the understanding and appreciation of Ellington as one of the nation's most innovative musical entertainers.

I discovered Ellington "late" most likely because I was immersed in his '40's sound at an early age and grew up thinking there was nothing new. He was born in Washington, DC in 1899 and spent his early career there while learning his trade. He wrote what he called "American music," a unique blend of his creative genius and elements of jazz, blues, classical, swing, bop, and popular song. Ellington appealed to a wide audience, but the appeal was compartmentalized and so broad that you would be hard pressed to find someone who liked everything he composed. I think the one element that unified his work was elegance. Early on, that came from his training as a pianist and was bolstered later by impressionistic classical influences. Also, much of that elegance came from his long-time association with the classically trained composer, arranger and pianist, Billy Strayhorn.

I took a special interest in Ellington when I began listening to the music of the British composer, Frederick Delius. Delius's music left me spellbound then. It was rich, melodic, and complex. Later I learned it was so much that it is considered some of the most difficult music to realize in the classical catalog. As early as the 1880's, his compositions incorporated motifs and melodies from the songs of ex-slaves working on the orange plantations he managed along the St. Johns River in Florida. Those musical themes would appear frequently throughout his career. Ellington had similar interests and it would be quite natural that he would appreciate Delius. In fact the appreciation and influence was so deep that Ellington eventually composed and recorded a tribute - In A Blue Summer Garden - to Delius.

Today we commemorate the legendary Duke Ellington on what would be his 116th birthday. Here are two of Ellington's finest moments. The first one is universally recognized and comes from the orchestra near its peak in the early '40s. The second, from 1965, is lesser known but still full of all the magic the master and his orchestra possessed.

Smooth, high brow, faultless, sophisticated, American. All of these words describe the music that came out of the world of Ellington as a composer, performer, and conductor. For fifty years he defined jazz in his own way with his superbly talented jazz orchestra, surviving the onslaught of bebop, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. His discography includes over seventy hit records out of hundreds of releases spanning seven decades. Album sales remain strong four decades after his death.

We end with a historic moment in jazz history: Duke Ellington and his orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Jazz was changing from a dance band to smaller ensemble format and at the same time competing with the rise of rock and roll. Ellington decided to link two compositions with a free-wheeling sax solo. Many jazz historians agree that this was a landmark performance that not only gave the band concept renewed life but also gave jazz a new and expanded direction in sound and listener experience. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

National Blueberry Pie Day

There isn't much to say about today's subject. One needs to feel the dough as it's hand-mixed. Hear the fruit and sugar bubbling on the stove as it reduces into a thickened filling. See the pattern of the lattice work take shape across the filling in the pie shell. Smell the aroma of berries and pastry baking in the oven. Taste the product of your culinary skill and nature's unforgettable sweet berry bounty. Downright sensational.

Below is the recipe we've enjoyed most in the last thirty years. It comes from The Southern Heritage Pies and Pastry Cookbook (1984), one of a series of nineteen books in The Southern Heritage Cookbook Library published by Southern Living.

Blueberry Pie

1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 cups fresh blueberries
2 tablespoons butter 
Pastry for 1 double-crust (9-inch) pie

Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan, stirring well to remove lumps. Add berries; mix well. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is thickened and bubbly. Add butter, mixing well. Set mixture aside and let cool.

Roll half of the pastry to 1/8 inch thickness on a lightly floured surface; fit into a 9-inch pie plate. Pour cooled berry mixture into the pastry shell.

Roll remaining pastry into 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into 3/4 inch wide strips, and arrange in a lattice design over filling. Trim edges; seal and flute. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees, and continue baking for 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Yield: one 9-inch pie.

The Southern Heritage Cookbook Library has served us well over the years. It's filled with classic Southern recipes, foodways history and personal anecdotes, and scores of photos and illustrations from Southern archives. I don't understand why this series isn't republished for a new generation of cooks. If you find the cookbooks at a yard sale for a dollar or two, grab them. You won't be disappointed.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster On The Eve Of Its Third Decade

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Ukraine) reactor explosion and fire occurred on this day in 1986. The event remains the worst accident of its kind. A precise number of casualties will never be known beyond the 41 who died during and in the few months following the event. On the edge of the plant, the city of Pripyat died. Its 50,000 people were evacuated in two days leaving behind a photograph of interrupted lives. In the 29 years since it has become a prime destination for those seeking the disturbing presence of abandoned and decaying places.

The background radiation in Pripyat remains about three times above normal with hot spots exceeding fifty times normal. Should you choose to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the city of Pripyat, here are the tourist rules

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady Of Song

Ella Fitzgerald in 1950                                          Photo: Carl Van Vechten

In 1934, Ella Jane Fitzgerald wanted to dance at an amateur night at the Apollo in Harlem, but was intimidated by other dancers and decided to sing instead. It was the beginning of a career that took her magnificent voice through the big bands, to jazz, bop, and the Great American Songbook. With a voice ranging from smoky to bright she put her signature on every note and sharp diction on every word. For people who like to immerse themselves in lyrics, Ella was unbeatable. And when she forgot those lyrics or just let the spontaneity flow, the scat singing was priceless.


I saw her perform once in an overcrowded and hot venue in Washington. After a few songs, the crowd didn't mind the environment. She had us wrapped in music for over two hours and left us wanting more after several encores. Everyone had a great time that night, especially Ella. Looking back on that concert, I realize how significant it was. Ella had turned 50 and completed her famous "Songbook" series a few years earlier. And though her peak years were coming to an end, what she had left exceeded the best of what most 20th century singers ever offered. She went on to perform another quarter of a century dazzling audiences everywhere. Ella passed away almost nineteen years ago, but she's still making her mark, living on through a huge discography and video record. In all, it is an immense, if not iconic 


Throughout her very public life, Ella Fitzgerald remained a private, if not shy, person. Were she receiving a birthday cake today, I can envision a broad, approving smile and nervous glances from squinting eyes behind those big bottle bottom glasses. She'd respond with a heart-felt "Thank you, thank you," and move into the comfort and safety of song.

Happy birthday, Ella. What a lady, that First Lady of Song. Thank you! Thank you!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day 2015: A Personal Journey

Father Mississippi                            Walter Inglis Anderson, American, ca. 1955

I don't mind celebrating Earth Day.  In some way, in fact, a celebration of the planet takes place in our home every day.  And it happens in spite of the full-on seizure of environmental themes by the radical left - the green movement - that came with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. Even the unhinged need an anchor but it's sad they selected such a universal idea. In the last generation it's even sadder because the New Media Age often isolates us even more from the outside, making it more difficult to experience, understand, appreciate, and protect our planet. All of my adult life, I've fought hard to erase that isolation. These words 
were the inspiration, more at revelation, first heard in 1971:

...we divide our spirit in two parts, what we do and what happens to us. This is the great illusion. There's really no difference as the joyous ones in the heavens know. What happens to you as well as what you do is fundamentally your doing. And when we say it's your doing, it's not the ordinary you that you call your ego or your conscious mind, it's a deeper you than that. It's the you at which you are one with nature for man and nature form a single pattern of activity, one process, just that man is a little bit more complicated than the trees. But he goes with them and the whole thing is one single process. It isn't that nature pushes you around or that you push nature around. If you are awake, if your eyes are wide open and you look at things freshly instead of with your ordinary patterns, ordinary ways in which you have been taught to think, you see that the whole process of life is something that just happens. The Buddhists call it tathata. We translate that "suchness," "just like that."

If you think that the world is going somewhere, that there are certain things that are supposed to happen and there are certain things that are supposed not to happen you never see the way it is like music. Music has no destination. We don' play it in order to get somewhere. If that were the way, the best orchestras would be those who got to the end of the piece the fastest.  Music is a pattern which we listen to and enjoy as it unfolds. In the same way, "Where is the water going?" Where do the leaves go? Where are the clouds going? There not going anywhere because nature understands that the point of the whole thing is to be here, to be wide awake to the now that is going on. So when you listen to music you don't try to hold in your memory what is past or to think about what's coming. You listen to the pattern as it unfolds and so watch it as it moves now. It's a dance. And dancing is like music for when you dance you dance just to dance. You don't aim at a particular place on the floor that is your destination of the dance. You listen to the music and you move your body with it [as if] your eyes are following the patterns of the water.

The secret is to spend some time every day in which you don't think but just watch, in which you don't form any ideas about life but look at it, listen to it, smell it, feel it. And when you get rid of all the talk in  your head, all the ideas about what I do as distinct from what happen to me or what's the difference between man and nature or between what's mine and what's yours it all goes. and it's just the dancing pattern, what the Chinese call "li," the word that originally meant the markings in jade, the grain in wood, or...the pattern on water. When you let go of the definitions, of the attempt to try to pin down nature, to pin down life in your mind so that you can feel you are completely in control of it, its all based on the idea that you're different from it, that you have to master it. When you don't pin it down anymore, when you don't try to cling to it as if it was something different from you then your whole life has about it the sensation of flowing like water. It always goes away. but it always comes back because away and back are two sides of the same thing. Let it go!

And here is the foundation upon which that revelation took place:

Psalm 104 
1 Praise the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. 2 He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent 3 and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. 4 He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. 5 He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. 6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. 7 But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; 8 they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them. 9 You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth. 10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. 11 They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. 12 The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. 13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. 14 He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate-- bringing forth food from the earth: 15 wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart. 16 The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. 17 There the birds make their nests; the stork has its home in the pine trees. 18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the coneys. 19 The moon marks off the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. 20 You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. 21 The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. 22 The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. 23 Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening. 24 How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number-- living things both large and small. 26 There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. 27 These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. 28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. 29 When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. 30 When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. 31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works-- 32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke. 33 I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. 34 May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD. 35 But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. Praise the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD.
Earth Day 2015 may be ending shortly in my community, but these passages where East meets West tell us that every day is an Earth day. For me the celebration indeed flows like water. It is a joy to be immersed in nature. Everyone should experience it and I hope these words move you to that realization.   

First quotation, Buddhism: Man and Nature, Alan W, Watts, Hartley Films, 1968
Psalm 104, The Bible, New International Version, 2011

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

John Muir: A World In Sand And Heaven In Wild Flowers

John Muir in his beloved Yosemite Valley in 1890

Today marks the birthday of the great American naturalist and conservationist, John Muir (1839-1914). Through his efforts and the movements he supported with such fervor - he founded the Sierra Club - we can enjoy the spectacular wildness that is Yosemite National Park. His efforts also help establish the national park movement that today provide us with more than 400 units administered by the National Park Service. In addition, there are more than 6500 state parks and thousands of local parks and preserves to enjoy. Although Muir focused on the preservation of wilderness his work was a model for cultural preservation, a movement begun largely with Civil War commemorations late in the 19th century. 

By nature, Muir was a wanderer physically and emotionally building upon his studies in botany and geology as he traveled. In 1868 he saw Yosemite Valley for the first time and soon realized he had found his calling in the world of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is how he described the revelation in his autobiographical notebook:

There are eight members in our family....All are useful members of society - save me. One is a healer of the sick. Another, a merchant, and a deacon in good standing. The rest school teachers and farmers' wives - all exemplary, stable, anti-revolutionary. Surely then, I thought, one may be spared for so fine an experiment.
... the remnants of compunction - the struggle covering the serious business of settling down -gradually wasted and melted, and at length left me wholly free - born again! I will follow my instincts, be myself for good or ill, and see what will be the upshot...As long as I live, I'll hear the waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

We should all be so lucky.

To learn more about John Muir. Visit the John Muir Exhibit at the Sierra Club website. Yosemite National Park has a fine tribute to Muir at this link.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

San Francisco Earthquake: 109 Years Ago

San Francisco is my favorite West Coast city and, as cities go, the museums, restaurants, and parks make it one of the best anywhere. For me, what makes the city really special is its natural setting, a splendid combination of its bay, the coastal mountains, and mediterranean climate. But there is a more subtle nature to that setting and one that was completely unknown on the early morning of April 18, 1906 when a great earthquake shook the town. On that date earth science was a very young science. The idea that San Francisco sat astride two massive and drifting plates, one of which was moving toward Alaska, would have been laughable. Fifty years later, such thinking was widely accepted in the theory of plate tectonics. 

On that morning 109 years ago and in the days that followed, "theory" wasn't on the minds of San Franciscans. They wanted to survive. This is how the opening paragraphs of the National Archives entry describe the event:

On the morning of April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake shook San Francisco, California. Though the quake lasted less than a minute, its immediate impact was disastrous. The earthquake also ignited several fires around the city that burned for three days and destroyed nearly 500 city blocks.

Despite a quick response from San Francisco's large military population, the city was devastated. The earthquake and fires killed an estimated 3,000 people and left half of the city's 400,000 residents homeless. Aid poured in from around the country and the world, but those who survived faced weeks of difficulty and hardship.

The survivors slept in tents in city parks and the Presidio, stood in long lines for food, and were required to do their cooking in the street to minimize the threat of additional fires. The San Francisco earthquake is considered one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

You can read the rest of the article and view scores of historic photographs and documents related to the event here.  The National Park Service has a fine resource newsletter on the quake. The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle has a few commemorative articles as well as a new archive of photographs. Below are several stereoscope cards from the family archives showing the scene following the earthquake and fire.

If you want to see remnants of the earthquake first hand and learn a bit more about it, plate tectonics, and continental drift there's no better place in my opinion than the Earthquake Trail at Point Reyes National Seashore. [Point Reyes is a spectacular resource in the National Park Service. Plan two or three days minimum to explore all of it.] The Seashore is accessible from Highway 1 at Olema about eighteen miles north of the Golden Gate.  The trail - an easy half-mile - is at the Bear Valley Visitor Center.  The trail's focal point is the famous old fence displaced eighteen feet by the quake.

I have experienced just one earthquake - Alaska in 2000 - that really concerned me. It lasted about thirty seconds and was strong enough to keep me swaying in my seat in a dark theater while the sound of thunder and rock slides rumbled outside. Our guides told us not to worry - they happened all the time at the site. Easy for them to say. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Charlie Chaplin: "A Day Without Laughter Is A Day Wasted."

In his 88 years, he graced the world of entertainment as a performer, director, producer, businessman, and composer. His concern for everyday people and their often difficult lives was a common theme in virtually all his films as well as his private life. Such humanitarian sympathies led him to ally with well-known leftist in the U.S. and eventually leave the country in the early 1950s. Through it all, his endearing, bumbling, yet refined tramp brought laughter and awareness to millions.

We are of course talking about the irrepressible Charlie Chaplin, born on this day in 1889 in London. On a tour of the United States in 1913 he caught the eye of film producer Max Sennett. In was in preparation for his second film that he stumbled upon his persona as the "Little Tramp" a role that would become his signature. Today, if you took a photograph of the "Little Tramp" to almost any corner of the world touched by Western culture, chances are someone would recognize it. That's a powerful statement given that the character hasn't appeared in a film for almost eighty years. We should be pleased that such greatness persists. 

Take some time today to visit Chaplin's official site. The biography page is especially useful, providing information about nine "masterpiece features" and a complete filmography. Chaplin has three films on the American Film Institute's Greatest Films of All Time" list. They are: City Lights (1931) at #11, The Gold Rush (1925) at #58, and Modern Times (1936) at #78. It's important to keep in mind that Chaplin was the director, producer, writer, star, composer, and editor for all of these films except Modern Times which was edited by Willard Nico.

My personal favorite among all of his films is The Great Dictator (1940). Interestingly, this film was Chaplin's first "talkie." In it Chaplin portrays two characters, the "Little Tramp" variation of a Jewish veteran of World War I attempting to reestablish his life as a barber, and  Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomainia.   Any resemblance between Adenoid Hynkel and Adolph Hitler is completely intentional. The film is a masterful piece of political satire made as an appeal to Americans and their leadership to wake up to the threat of Nazi Germany. If you have not watched The Great Dictator (1940), add it to your queue today. You won't regret it.

Here is a 25 minute, French documentary on The Great Dictator produced in 2003. I normally do not link to long videos here but this one is exceptionally well-made. It's packed with important background information and features several scenes including the "globe scene" [19:26] rightfully described as "one of the most brilliant scenes in all of cinema." 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

American Composer Philip Glass Wins The Glenn Gould Prize

As loyal readers know, Philip Glass and Glenn Gould are favorite subjects on this blog. I certainly acknowledge their birthdays each year and often post their music and performances. It was a double treat this week when the Glenn Gould Foundation announced in Toronto that Glass was selected as the eleventh winner of The Glenn Gould Prize.  Leonard Cohen, Sir Andre Previn, Yo Yo Ma, and Oscar Peterson are among the previous winners. The prize, often described at the Nobel Prize of the arts,  is given every two years to "an individual for a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts."

Here is an example of the enrichment brought to us by the genius that is Philip Glass:

I doubt that Canada will ever produce another legendary pianist like Glenn Gould. His eccentricities often left producers and recording engineers at the edge of madness. His technical perfection left the world astounded:


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One Hundred Fifty Years Ago: Abraham Lincoln And Ford's Theatre

Ford's Theatre, 514 10th Street, NW, Washington, D.C.

Today marks the sesquicentennial of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington. He was taken across the street to the home of William and Anna Peterson where died shortly after 7:00 a.m. the following morning. The theatre remained closed for over a century. It reopened in 1968 as a performance venue and national historic site that included the Peterson House. Today it is owned by the National Park Service and operated through a partnership agreement with the Ford's Theatre Society. 

There will be much written and broadcast today about this tragic event but I think there is one program tonight at Ford's that will outweigh them the stories. It is Now He Belongs to the Ages: A Lincoln Commemoration, a Society centerpiece of their commemoration programming. All of the tickets are long gone for this event but thanks to the Society's efforts you can watch it streaming live online at 9:00 p.m. tonight.  The program includes "readings of Lincoln’s words and stories, Civil War-era music, excerpts from Lincoln’s favorite theatre and operas, and more. The event seeks to remind us that we not only lost a president; we lost a man who treasured his family, his friends and his country with a love so strong it could hold the Union together."

Abraham Lincoln and son, Tad, February 5, 1865

Ford Theatre photographs, Ford's Theatre National Historic Site
Lincoln photograph, Alexander Gardner. Abraham Lincon with his son Tad (Thomas), February 5, 1865. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (140) Digital ID # cph-3a05994

Monday, April 13, 2015

Eudora Welty: Life And Legend Amid The Honeysuckle

Today we celebrate the great Southern writer Euroda Welty on what would be her 106th birthday.

In memory of Eudora Welty, we celebrate her 106th birthday today. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author penned novels and short stories about the American South from her home in Jackson, Mississippi.

Welty lived and died in Jackson, Mississippi. Although she attended college in Wisconsin and New York, and traveled abroad, she always returned to the house on Pinehurst Street that she had called "home" since high school. Her skill as a writer enabled her to transform observations of life in Mississippi into a body of literature including novels, short stories, reviews, letters, and an autobiography. Over sixty years she received a host of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for her 1973 novel, The Optimist's Daughter.

Here is a short CSPAN BookTV production exploring Welty and her home in Jackson:

For four years toward the end of the Great Depression (1929-1939) Welty was employed by the Works Progress Administration to document everyday life in Mississippi. Her photography from that period has become well known as an expression of her powers of observation. Smithsonian Magazine produced this short documentary on her photography on the occasion of the centennial of her birth in 2009.

Our final video is a brief look at the story behind Welty's portrait - detailed above - on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

For more information on Eurdora Welty readers should visit the outstanding website maintained by the Euroda Welty Foundation.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Happy National Sibling Day 2015

Today is the national day to honor our brothers and sisters. For most Americans I doubt it's much of an issue unless you happen to be known as the "only child." Biologically, I've been an only child for almost 69 years. Such a status has its advantages especially in childhood but over the years the scale of judgement seems to balance, then measure the experience as a disadvantage. Perhaps if one chooses to take vows of silence or live as a recluse being Mom and Dad's little darling works for a lifetime. But most of us will soon find ourselves with friends, spouses, and children all functioning in the greater and lesser circles of family community. That's where I find myself today and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm in such a state largely because my marriage not only bound me to my wife, it also bound me to nine brother and sisters. We're so close that the concept of "in-law" left our vocabulary years ago. Maybe it was that first Christmas together in Oklahoma in 1983 where 27 of us spent a week at the four-bedroom, one bath home of my wife's parents. It was an adventure for an only child of 34 who enjoyed his quiet and solitude.  Out of necessity adjustment came quickly and without regret. 

This photo was taken in Pensacola in 1981 at my wedding. Unfortunately one brother could not be with us but I do have this photo of him taken about ten years later. 

Happy Sibling Day to all my brothers and sisters. You enrich my life more than you will ever know.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Paul Robeson: American Natural

In this age of Auto-Tune, Melodyne and other pitch correction software, the concept of vocal talent continues to degrade toward mediocrity and worse. In its place we find the smoke and mirrors of
Paul Robeson in 1942
flashy, revealing costumes; seizure-inducing light shows; towers of flame; and deafening noise to take your mind off the lyrics. That's not to say the nation lacks extraordinary singers. It's just nearly impossible to find that purity in the entertainment industry today. Obviously the consumers are willing to buy what is pushed at them by the industry moguls. Perhaps the increasing diffusion of musical interests - the niche markets - will eventually improve the quality of what we hear. In the interim, musical talent remains a far cry from what it was in the last century.

One of the finest natural singing talents then was the American bass, Paul Robeson, born on this day in 1898.  Robeson was a scholar, athlete, actor and singer, a graduate of Rutgers and Columbia Law School.  You can read more about his biography here.  In 1927 Robeson found near-instant fame singing "Ol' Man River" in the Broadway musical, Showboat. He achieved extraordinary international success over the next decade as a singer and actor but turned to political activism by the late '30's. His continued disillusionment with the treatment of Africa and Africans in the United States pushed him toward leftist and labor causes that ended in conflict with federal anti-Communist interests, namely the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late '40's. For most of the next decade he was essentially blacklisted but returned to performing in the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union by 1959. When his health failed in the early '60's he returned to the United States and lived a near-reclusive life until his death in 1976.

Here is natural talent at its finest:

Listening to his voice in classical performance we are left to imagine what scale his career could have reached in an era of equal rights for all Americans. In the same manner, we wonder about what can only be called his lost years, fired by the legacy of political sympathies that would move him to record this:


Regardless, Robeson's brief revival around 1960 brought to mind his great value as a gifted entertainer. Furthermore, it reinforced his place in history as a civil rights activist, one that I'm sure was an inspiration for many who would carry on in their own way in the struggle for equality that would shortly engulf the nation. 

We close with his signature song, the one that made him an international celebrity in 1927. I take heart in noting that this version has over 3 million hits on You Tube. It comes from the first all-sound version of the film produced in 1936.

I get weary and so sick of tryin'

I'm tired of livin', and afraid of dyin'
But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin' along


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hank Aaron Hit #715 Forty-One Years Ago Today

It is a sultry day in Atlanta today, so much so that the upper 80's heat may break a record. If so it isn't the only hot record to be set on this date.  Forty-one years ago, Hank Aaron swung at a 4th inning pitch from Al Downing of the LA Dodgers. "Hammerin' Hank" sent it sailing for a home run in front of a record sellout crowd at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. It was his 715th career home run, one more than Babe Ruth's record set in 1935.

In 1976 Aaron retired from baseball with 755 home runs. That record would stand another forty years until broken in 2007 by San Francisco Giants slugger, Barry Bonds. Aaron joined the Braves management team after leaving the playing field. It's a job he still holds along with records for the most career RBI's (2297), the most career total bases (6856) and the most career extra bases hit (1577).

Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was demolished and replaced by a new stadium for the 1996 Olympic Games. That stadium was reconfigured as Turner Field, the Home of the Braves. And across the parking lot from Turner Field you can visit the holy ground of Aaron's record-breaking homer. There a section of home run fence and wall from the evening of April 8, 1974 still stands. It's a fitting shrine to an Atlanta hero, a gentleman, and one of baseball's finest.

Plaque photo, Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY, San Francisco Public Radio
Wikipedia, Hank Aaron entry, Hank Aaron page

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter 2015

Easter Changes Everything

The Angel Rolling Away The Stone From The Sepulchre, William Blake, 1805

Music for today is the hymn, Thine Be The Glory, Risen Conquering Son, written by Edmund Budry and set to music from George Frederick Handel's oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus:

Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son;
endless is the victory, thou o'er death hast won;
angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away,
kept the folded grave clothes where thy body lay.

Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son,
Endless is the vict'ry, thou o'er death hast won.

Lo! Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb;
Lovingly he greets us, scatters fear and gloom;
let the Church with gladness, hymns of triumph sing;
for her Lord now liveth, death hath lost its sting.

No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life;
life is naught without thee; aid us in our strife;
make us more than conquerors, through thy deathless love:
bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.

Christ As The Redeemer Of Man     William Blake, 1808

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Holy Saturday 2015

With the altar stripped bare and the Divine Service unspoken, the silence resonates.

Angels Hovering Over The Body Of Christ In The Sepulchre, William Blake, ca. 1805

Illustration, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday 2015

Christ Nailed To The Cross The Third Hour              William Blake, 1803-06

Ninth movement from Sir John Stainer's 1887 oratorio, The Crucifixion"

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, 

that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, 
but that the world, through him, might be saved.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Maundy Thursday 2015

Sacrament of the Last Supper                                               Salvador Dali, 1955

Today is the fifth day of Holy Week. On this day Christians commemorate Christ's washing of his disciples' feet, the institution of Holy Communion, His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Judas Iscariot's betrayal.

Stay with me, remain here with me.
Watch and pray, watch and pray.

 Stay here and keep watch with me. 
Watch and pray, watch and pray!

Watch and pray not to give way to temptation.
The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.

 My heart is nearly broken with sorrow. 
Remain here with me, stay awake and pray.

 Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.
 Father, if this cannot pass me by without my drinking it, 
your will be done.

Stay with me, remain here with me.

Watch and pray, watch and pray.

Stay with me, remain here with me.
Watch and pray, watch and pray.

If you are interested in learning more about Dali's surreal Sacrament of the Last Supper, go herehere, and here.

Emmylou Harris: All She Intended To Be

In four and a half decades singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris has won thirteen Grammy Awards. Her career first gained traction in small clubs and coffee houses in Washington and its suburbs.  I was only a few miles from most of the venues she played then but never saw her perform. Still, it was impossible not to see and hear the advertising in and around Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Silver Spring. By the early '70's she moved to Los Angeles to work with Gram Parsons and his band, The Grievous Angels. When Parsons died in 1973 the devastating event led her to focus on Parsons's search for the fusion sound he called "cosmic American music."  The sound Harris and Parsons produced in their short time together , in addition to her life-long dance with experimental sounds in folk, blues and country music would have a significant impact on decades of American music.

Today, Harris continues to produce innovative and award-winning sound. In 2014 her album of duets with Rodney Crowell - Old Yellow Moon -  was her latest Grammy winner. Here is a track from the album:

Today Emmylou Harris turns 68. Fame has been kind to her given such a long and successful touring and recording career. She's brought quality entertainment to millions of people since the beginning in those early days with Graham Parsons. We'll never know where the two of them would have gone together in the world of music but it's safe to say it would have been far. Here is a song she and Bill Danoff wrote as a tribute to Parsons:

I don't want to hear a love song
I got on this airplane just to fly
And I know there's life below
But all that it can show me
Is the prairie and the sky

And I don't want to hear a sad story
Full of heartbreak and desire
The last time I felt like this
It was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire
And I stood on the mountain in the night and I watched it burn
I watched it burn, I watched it burn.

I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham
I would hold my life in his saving grace.
I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham
If I thought I could see, I could see your face.

Well you really got me this time
And the hardest part is knowing I'll survive.
I have come to listen for the sound
Of the trucks as they move down
Out on ninety five
And pretend that it's the ocean
coming down to wash me clean, to wash me clean
Baby do you know what I mean

I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham
I would hold my life in his saving grace.
I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham
If I thought I could see, I could see your face.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Greatest April Fools' Day Joke On Television, Maybe Of All Time

On April 1, 1957, the BBC program Panorama broadcast a three-minute report on the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. At that time, spaghetti was a relatively unknown food in Britain and many of the estimated 8 million viewers were quite happy to believe the report. After all, the BBC never fibs.
As you will see, it was quite a compelling, professional and convincing production. I remember seeing the report on the Jack Paar Tonight Show around 1960. And yes, I did ask my parents if it was true.

Here for your enjoyment is what some have called the greatest April Fools' joke of all time:

I wonder how climate change has affected the spaghetti harvest lately?